History of the Pledge of Allegiance

We had a rather interesting class in American History this week. My professor, Dr. Robert Rydell, gave us a brief history of the Pledge of Allegiance. I’ve always known it had been changed a time or two over the years, like adding the words “under God” in the 1950s. But I had no idea the evolution the Pledge has gone through!

First, a little background. The pledge was the effort of Francis Bellamy in August, 1892. According to Dr. Rydell, the Pledge was written for children in celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ landing in the New World. It would be published in the Boston magazine, “The Youth’s Companion”. The words to the Pledge were sent to school children all over the country. The original Pledge holds only limited resemblance to the words we recite today:

From 1892: I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands; one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Dr. Rydell showed us the differences in how people saluted the flag in that day. First, the salute – known as Bellamy’s Salute – began the same as a military salute, at the eyebrow. That would be held as people said the words, “I pledge allegiance to”. As they then said, “my flag…” the right hand was extended from the salute to a reach toward the flag, hand still open with fingers together. It was held there until the pledge was finished.

Changes were not long in coming. First of all, the word “to” was added before “the republic” almost immediately. Larger changes took a bit longer.

This was a time in the US when immigration was becoming vastly unpopular, the economy was in turmoil due to over-production, a series of labor strikes and subsequent economic “panics”, as well as an influx of European and Asian immigrants. Concern grew among some groups, including some national leaders, that those immigrants would be pointing to the US flag, while privately intending their “pledge of allegiance” to their own flag back home. Thus, in 1923 at a National Flag Conference in Washington, DC, “my flag” was changed to “the flag of the United States of America”.

In the 1940s when the US was at war with Nazi Germany, the dreaded “Heil, Hitler” salute was all too close to the part of our salute raised to the flag. The American salute to the flag was changed to the “hand over heart” that we do today.

In 1942, the Pledge was made an official part of displaying the American flag, as part of an effort “to codify and emphasize the existing rules and customs pertaining to the display and use of the flag of the United States of America,” Congress enacted a Pledge of Allegiance to the flag.” [H.R. Rep. No. 2047, 77th Cong., 2d Sess. 1 (1942)]

The final big change came in 1954 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved adding the words, “under God”. He said, “From this day forward, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural school house, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty.”

In 2002, Michael Newdow, an atheist and attorney, filed suit in the 9th District Court seeking to ban the Pledge because it purported to teach monotheism to his daughter. With various decisions, overturnings, and refilings for different plaintiffs, the Eastern District Court of California declared mandatory teacher-led recitation of the Pledge to be unconstitutional. Since then, other states have taken their own paths, some allowing voluntary recitation, others dropping it all together. Some, including New York, require it to be read each day. The United States Congress, Supreme Court and other organizations recite the Pledge at session openings.

Resources:

“Francis Bellamy”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Bellamy
Lectures: Dr. Robert Rydell, American History 102, Montana State University, Bozeman
Newdow v The Congress of the United States, et al (NO. CIV. S-05-17 LKK/DAD)
“The Pledge of Allegiance”, John W. Baer, http://oldtimeislands.org/pledge/pledge.htm

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